No Spoilers in this post.
So, I saw the movie in a theater last night. For the record, I felt very safe. The theater, on a Friday at 8:30 before Labor Day, was basically deserted. We bought our tickets online and didn’t visit the sole box office worker. There was a single masked and gloved ticket taker who scanned my phone from 8 feet away…the only interaction that wasn’t behind a plastic screen. There was a single person selling concessions. No food was ordered, though I’d have killed for a hot pretzel with cheese sauce, but I did get a fountain pop. The worker behind a near full screen passed the empty cup and lid through a small hole at the bottom and I paid with touchless Apple Pay. I filled my drink from the new Pespi Spire, which surpassingly replaces the Coke Freestyle, and took our seats. We spread on the hand sanitizer and kept our masks on the whole time. We were alone in our row, and there were maybe 10 other people in the large theater all spaced out with 2 rows and 3 seats in between each group at minimum. All in all, I felt safer than I would have in about any other indoor setting due to the large open space, very low attendance and negligible interaction with other people. Way safer than picking up food inside a fast food joint for example.
On to the movie, I’m not going to give a spoiler filled review partly because a lot of people will be slow to see this movie and partly because I have no idea what was going on. Reading this article gave me more understanding of what was supposedly happening than the 2:30 of runtime did. If you’re into spoilers it’s a good place to start. A similar summary was posted upthread.
What did I think? Honestly, my first impression is that it sucked. It’s a confusing nonsensical mess. And it’s poorly made to boot, relatively speaking.
I really really like Christopher Nolan movies and he’s the only director going right now who could get me out of the house and into a theater in this pandemic. I LOVE The Dark Knight and really liked Inception and Interstellar. Memento was amazing. Dunkirk is one of the best war movies I’ve seen in years. While I do have quibbles with some of the logic in the finales of both Inception and Interstellar, and time-travel/time-dilation storylines always tend to be problematic by their nature, all in all I found them engrossing and very enjoyable with great characters, acting and plot pacing. I say this to try to prove that I am not a Nolan-hater, I’m not even a critic, I’m a stan.
With that in mind, after one viewing, my initial impression is that this movie isn’t just confusing, it’s bad. I will certainly give it another chance post-pandemic or in-home, whichever comes first. Nolan has earned that, but my experience was not an enjoyable one. Here’s the issues:
It’s fucking confusing. Not confusing in the Inception way, where there’s just a lot of intricate stuff happening kinda fast, it’s confusing in the ramblings of a schizophrenic sort of way. I think Nolan has gotten a little full of himself and is letting his obsession with time undermine his work. A movie at it’s very core needs to tell a story. The story doesn’t have to be simple, universal or even perfectly free of plot holes, but it needs to be comprehensible. This movie reminds me of Malick’s Tree Of Life, an abortion of a movie that can only appeal to movie nerds who care about style or technical details more than the script, the characters and the story. Tenet is not a roller coaster where the plot is just a means to an end either, it’s trying to weave a complex narrative and failing miserably.
It’s unintelligible. This contributes to the first issue, but it’s a problem in and of itself. Nolan’s sound mixing frequently gets criticism and he does like to lay massive sound on top of fast paced dialogue which can be tricky for some people to parse, but typically I’ve never felt like that’s a problem for me. This movie however is a garbled, mumbly mess. Several of the characters are wearing masks, oxygen masks, gas masks and tactical helmets, while speaking critical exposition, it’s a major challenge to understand them at many key spots. Lots of discussions, including the cliched big-bad’s monologue at the climax, were carried on via cell phone with lots of cuts. Several of the characters are speaking with heavy accents. In Branagh’s case it’s a heavy (bad?) fake Russian one and he does a lot of the exposition. Clemence Poesy’s French accent and Dimple Kapadia Indian accent both add a degree of difficulty to following other crucial exposition. John David Washington is a somewhat inexperienced actor and for some reason he mumbles most of his lines in this film, not sure if that’s direction or an attempt to distance himself from his previous roles I don’t know. Pattison too slurs half his lines, playing the role like he’s half drunk. Throw in the gunfire, car chase noises, ocean and boat sounds, Opera halls, Mumbai streets and musical score, it’s simple impossible to hear what’s going on without subtitles.
It’s all exposition and then it’s not. Several of the movie’s main conceits are just vomited out by minor characters in long winded bits of dialogue. The main characters barely challenge any of it, time travel exists…cool, what now, and there’s no time for discussion or clarification on any of the details. Several key points are said once, very quickly in hard to hear settings, and then never repeated. For example, I didn’t find out the villain’s main motivation until I read the linked review above the next day. So there’s several scenes where the plot is explained, often unintelligibly, but it’s just laid out in a monologue. There’s no “show”, it’s all “tell”. BUT, there’s a bunch of stuff they don’t explain at all. In fact, on the rare occasions when a character actually asks for more information another character tells them (and you the audience) don’t worry about it, you wouldn’t get it. This is a movie about time travel and paradoxes with stereotypical good guys and bad guys. There’s technology which never gets even a passing explanation. There’s continuity problems. There’s the threat of annihilation. Most of the basic questions about the implication of time travel aren’t asked and the ones that are are dismissed. There’s good guys and bad guys with goals you’re told about, but their motivations are basically an afterthought.
Why is anyone doing anything? Setting aside the fact that time travel and paradoxes call into question the purpose of everything that happens here, the character motivations are pretty nonsensical. The protagonist is an agent with a job and he basically is trying to save the world, but besides that we have no idea why he’s doing any of this. He’s just given orders by bosses he just met. His sidekick is recruited and immediately starts agreeing with everything. The femme fatale is just there, her given reason for being in an unhappy marriage to the bad guy makes almost no sense and the relationship with the protagonist basically evolves out of knowhere. He’s willing to risk the entire mission for her after a single meeting…and there’s not even a hint of a love interest, he’s helping just because. The bad guys are basically one dimensional evil dudes and even their goals are muddy at best. Eventually you’re given a motive, but it doesn’t really survive even the barest scrutiny. These people do things because Nolan wants them to, that’s about it.
It’s just not that cool. Say what you will about Inception or Interstellar, but they are at the very least an amazing spectacle. In them you travel through space, you inhabit dreamscapes, there’s an epic narrative. There’s scene chewing acting. There’s memorable scenes even taken out of context that are engrossing to watch. There’s amazing set pieces in iconic locales. There’s interesting relationships. This movie just doesn’t feel cool. Sure, there’s a yacht and a fancy restaurant and a opera house but for the most part, they aren’t unique. In most cases, it’s either people talking to each other, chasing each other or shooting at each other. Take away the time travel/backward movement and it’s a forgettable action flick. There’s no magic.
So, without breaking down the plot itself and without the benefit of multiple viewings to determine if maybe things just went over my head, that’s my take. Save your money and stay socially distant, wait for it to come to cable or streaming, turn on subtitles and see if you can find the story in this mess.